Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

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I’ve noted before in this blog the curious fact that books I pick up at random sometimes talk to each other in ways that deepen each of them. Lately I’ve found myself reading books about home and the wild and the border between the two.

Visitation highlights different aspects of last week’s book, Abigail, where the teenaged narrator is sent precipitously and secretly to a boarding school far away from the home she misses. The school, a former monastery, is vividly described, its stones, its curious doorways, its atmosphere of age and order. Part of her maturation is to make a home for herself in this bleak environment. Next week’s novel, too, is deeply engaged with these themes, but more about that next time.

The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The architect comes up with details to enchant his wife: colored glass in the living room windows, a finial he himself carved, a secret closet, a wrought-iron bird in the balcony railing off the bedroom. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades.

At 150 pages, this novel is short but surprisingly intense. I found myself engaging with each character more than in almost any other book I’ve read for years, and this in spite of the way they come and go. The one constant person is an unnamed gardener whose chapters intersperse the others as he goes about his work of planting and building and chopping wood. We have no access to his thoughts and he doesn’t speak, yet I know and treasure him.

There is little dialogue and few dramatic scenes, making this an unusual read for me. It shouldn’t work, but it does. There are events that listed sound boring—locking up a house, sailing on the lake, drying off with a towel, noting the cost of things—but the focus Erpenbeck brings to each makes them a profound experience. Focus, details, and a voice that speaks of joyous and terrible things with a calm compassion.

The land was originally intended as the inheritance for one of the mayor’s daughters, but he instead divides the land and sells it. The idea of inheritance recurs, each time a little different, sometimes as the symbol of a family’s continuity, but more often of loss, as with the mayor’s daughter. There are many such spirals—a sentence, a scent, a key—each turn revealing a little more. They pull you in deeper, another reason why this short novel feels so intense.

Visitation reminds me of Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s beautiful novel about a village over a span of thirteen years. Both books make me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass. Feel them and move on.

Do the books you read ever talk to each other?

I Am: The Selected Poetry of John Clare

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Born in 1793 in Helpston, Northamptonshire, Clare came from the rural working class. His parents were both illiterate, and he himself only went to a dame school until he was 12, even then often pulled out to help his father in the fields. Yet when he read a poem—James Thompson’s “Seasons”—he was inspired to write as well and went on to write over 3,500 poems.

Many of his best-known and best-loved poems are about nature. He wrote about the rural world he’d grown up in with nostalgia but not sentiment, and about wherever he was currently living, employing a keen eye and great appreciation for the colors, textures, and ecology of country life. In “The Wren” he lauds the humble pleasures he finds around him:

Why is the cuckoo’s melody preferred
And nightingale’s rich song so fondly praised
In poet’s rhymes? Is there no other bird
Of nature’s minstrelsy that oft hath raised
One’s heart to ecstasy and mirth as well?
I judge not how another’s taste is caught:
With mine, there’s other birds that bear the bell
Whose song hath crowds of happy memories brought,
Such the wood-robin singing in the dell
And little wren that many a time hath sought
Shelter from showers in huts where I did dwell
In early spring, the tenant of the plain
Tenting my sheep, and still they come to tell
The happy stories of the past again.

His poetry was influenced by the folk song culture in his family and village, as described in Georg Deacon’s John Clare and the Folk Tradition. Clare played the fiddle and collected folk songs, fiddle tunes, dance instructions and folk customs. As a folkie myself, I’ve been at many a pub sing and can appreciate the effect of Clare’s cultural environment on his work. I’m also grateful for the tunes and songs he collected and preserved.

His life was not all songs and flowers, though. Clare was shocked and shaken by the rapid changes brought by the nascent industrial revolution. Villages emptied as laborers sought better jobs in town. Worst of all, for Clare, was the enclosure of the commons, a severe financial loss to working class folks who used the land for pasture and agriculture, and an aesthetic loss for people like Clare who loved the moors and the wildlife that prospered there. We’re learning much now about the importance of green space for psychological health, but Clare was sounding the alarm long ago, as in this excerpt from “The Moors”.

Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds & wild as summer flowers,
Is faded all—a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be.
Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave,
And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now.

Clare wrote many poems to his first love Mary Joyce, whom he met at the dame school, but whose father turned him away. He later also wrote poems to his wife Patty with whom he had seven children, but continued to write about Mary until the end of his life. This excerpt from “First Love” shows his unconventional yet powerful imagery.

I ne’er was struck before that hour
With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
And took my eyesight quite away,

He suffered from mental illness in his later years, but continued to write even in the asylums where he was confined. While many of these poems are about nature and his lost love, he also wrote wrenching poems about his efforts to right himself, as in the title poem from this selection.

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

I come back to Clare’s poems often. I love the way he writes about nature and childhood, his yearning for his lost love and his indignation at the fencing of common land “In little parcels little minds to please”. Reading his work I can imagine myself tramping the moors, looking for jackdaws and starnels, and seeing “An oddling crow in idle motion swing / On the half-rotten ash-tree’s topmost twig”.

Have you read any of John Clare’s work? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

Wild Chamber, by Christopher Fowler

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What a comfort reading is during this dark time! There is much to be afraid of and loved ones to be afraid for, but it’s important to take a break sometimes, be somewhere else for a while.

I’ve been reading Fowler’s Bryant and May detective series in order. The two head up the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police formed during WWII to handle cases that could cause public unrest. Persisting into the present, it operates like no police department you’ve ever encountered and is constantly under threat of closure by traditional-minded administrators.

Arthur Bryant has his own methods which involve consulting museum curators, white witches, and his own offbeat but strangely useful collection of reference books. He’s a bit of a trickster, with a sly sense of humor. Having more depth than the typical English eccentric, I’ve come to delight in the odd turns his thinking takes, even odder as he ages and others begin to suspect the beginnings of dementia.

John May’s reputation as a ladies’ man has taken a bit of a beating as he ages. With a more logical approach to solving crimes, he tries to protect his friend from his wilder flights and is the only one who stands up to him.

The other members of the PCU are, well, characters in the sense of being unique, believable, yet a little quirky. For instance, Janice Longbright is enamored of the style of 50’s screen actresses—makeup, heels, hair, clothes, the whole shebang—but not terribly practically for chasing suspects down dark alleys.

In this outing, Bryant and May are investigating the murder of a woman in one of London’s parks and gardens, originally called (at least once) its “wild chambers”. This garden is in an exclusive crescent, so it’s kept locked with only residents having access. How could a killer have gotten in? Where is her missing husband? And what does her murder have to do with one of Bryant and May’s cases a year earlier?

Since I’m unable to go to England this spring as planned, I especially relished the way the investigation led through many of London’s parks and gardens, calling up sweet memories for me.

In fact, London is the real protagonist of this series. The solution to the crimes almost always hinges on Bryant’s arcane knowledge of London’s past, whether it’s the history of Bedlam, the routes of lost underground rivers, or forgotten details about St. Pancras Old Church and King’s Cross.

Interestingly, Bryant and May is also the name of London-based company that ran match factories in the 19th century before being absorbed by other companies.

These two detectives would fit perfectly into a Golden Age mystery, though their stories are a bit darker than those standards. The stories don’t really fit into the various subcategories of mystery. Bryant and May aren’t amateurs, but the stories aren’t police procedurals—unless you’re willing to accept a perfectly wacky procedure. They aren’t cosies exactly, but neither are they grim crime novels. What they are is delicious. Funny, infectious, knowledgeable about human nature and London’s long history: the perfect vacation.

What are you reading? Does it give you rest, comfort or courage?

Horizon, by Barry Lopez

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In this profound and generous book, Lopez looks back over some of the travels that have shaped his understanding and philosophy. We go from Oregon to Antarctica, from Nunavut to Tasmania, from Eastern Equatorial Africa to Xi’an in China.

Many of these expeditions are scientific endeavors, where he has joined a team of archeologists to excavate the site of a long-gone indigenous peoples or scientists measuring boreal (ocean bottom) life or another team measuring glacier movement. Sometimes he ventures out for other reasons, such as revisiting the Galápagos Islands or tracing the route of Shackleton’s open-boat journey to Elephant Island.

He weaves in stories of explorers and adventurers, the well-known such as Cook, Darwin, Scott, and the lesser-known such as Ranald MacDonald, Edward Wilson, Lt. Adolphus Greeley. He taps poets, writers, and philosophers for insights and connections.

I’ve taken my time reading this book. It’s so rich! I’ve gone back and reread sections, or paused for a few days to consider what I’ve just read. More than once I’ve picked it up to find him addressing something that was on my mind, as in this paragraph from the section in Antarctica. I had been thinking about various lifespans, and in particular that of rocks.

I turned one rock after another over in my gloved hands, to get its measure, to take it in more completely. In the absence of any other kind of life, these rocks seemed alive to me, living at a pace of unimaginable slowness, but revealing by their striations and cleavage, by their color, inclusions, and crystalline gleam, evidence of the path each had followed from primordial birth to this moment of human acquaintance.

The science is easy to follow, the descriptions gorgeous. Lopez depicts not only the natural world, but the human cultures that have come and gone upon it. What stands out for me is the unhurried accumulation of insights building one upon another, like a coral reef, to create an ethical framework, a structure that can hold the eager quest for knowledge of scientists, the adventurousness of explorers, the communities that care for each other and also the atrocities visited upon innocent people, cultures deliberately or accidentally wiped out, chemical waste dumped in cities and towns.

What are we to make of our current societies, where the drive for profit pushes technology without regard for consequences, where science is undermined by for-profit businesses and their government lackeys? There was much that was wrong in earlier centuries, earlier societies, but can we draw any lessons that could help us today? What is being lost as human cultures and species are obliterated, as glaciers melt into the sea?

And then we set that against the generosity of those who have sought to advance our knowledge, those who have labored to save the remnants of the past, those who have devoted themselves to conserving this world that we have so damaged, of Oates walking out into the night, of Shackleton’s determination to save every one of his crew.

Lopez’s accounts embody the respect for other cultures that many people today strive for. The cultures he explores—especially the lost indigenous cultures like the Thule of the Arctic, the Kaweskar of southern Chile—remind me of the long arc of human history, the coming and going of peoples. One insight I found particularly helpful was about communicating with “members of a culture that had experienced the brutal force of colonial intrusion. I knew the only right gift to offer people in these situations is to listen, to be attentive.”

The horizon he explores is physically and metaphorically the line where our known world gives way to air, to the space we still know almost nothing about. That liminal space is where exciting things can happen. The quest for knowledge and understanding—along with compassion—are what I value most in human beings. I will be reading and rereading this book for years to come.

Have you read a book that increased your knowledge of the natural world and challenged your philosophies?

The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall

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It’s actually all about race, I often find myself thinking as I read the euphemisms and cover stories promulgated by blustering politicians and repeated by their supporters. Growing up in a racially mixed city in the U.S., coming of age during the civil rights movement, I learned the code words and recognised what was really meant. It was so clear to me that “poor people” meant people of color that when a new friend told me she was on welfare, I blurted out, “But you’re white!”

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

In examining these three terms of cultural difference, Hall uses Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign, which is that language, each word that we use, that sign has two parts: the signifier which is what we hear and what is actually signified, i.e., the abstraction behind it.

Thus, the title of the first part is “Race—The Sliding Signifier”. In this talk he examines how what we understand by the word “race” has changed over time, yet retains echoes of its earlier meanings. He finds these changes in what is signified by this and the other two terms by looking at public discourse, saying:

As we set out to ask what it means to rethink cultural difference in discursive terms, discourse should be understood as that which gives human practice and institutions meaning, that which enables us to make sense of the world, and hence that which makes human practices meaningful practices that belong to history precisely because they signify in the way they mark out human difference.

These three lectures are obviously not light reading, but they are immensely rewarding. Hall also invokes Saussure’s theory that our words do not operate independently; instead they are part of a web of meaning, related to other words, a systemic model. These three concepts are central to the process of classifying difference in human societies. And this system is hierarchical. It’s all about power or, as Humpty Dumpty says, who is to be master.

By looking at how the discourse around these three terms has changed over time and what lies behind those changes (see what I did there?), Hall challenges us to consider how these terms can slide in the future, as we look at the things that are changing our culture such as globalisation and mass diasporas, which are leading to a “weave of differences” rather than a binary (e.g., black versus white) definition of identity.

He says (italics the author’s), “The question is not who we are but who we can become.”

Who can we become?

The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

Coorain

Rereading this bestselling 1989 memoir reminds me of why I enjoyed it so much back then. Conway gives us the opportunity to experience a childhood on a ranch in the Australian outback. She describes the austere beauty of the landscape, the desperate need for rain, the solitude for herself and her parents.

With no children besides her two older brothers within a hundred miles, she relies on her imagination and books for company. Helping out with the ranch work, she learns self-sufficiency and a practical grasp of what’s needed in the world. It is this combination of imagination and practicality that sends her into the world in search of education and greater understanding, a journey that will make her president of Smith College one day.

On this reading, I found myself fascinated with her parents in a way I hadn’t been before. She describes them as risk-takers, purchasing the land in 1929, not knowing that the drought was not seasonal but would become “legendary”, not knowing that the Depression was about to start in a few months. The ranch was her father’s dream, but the places he’d worked after returning from the horrors of the Great War were in a part of the country with a more forgiving landscape.

Her mother had grown up in a lush country town and enjoyed her career as a nurse, actually running her own country hospital. Yet she gave all this up to go with her new husband to the new home they named Coorain, an aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.

My father, being a westerner, born into that profound peace and silence, felt the need for it like an addiction to a powerful drug. Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. To those who know it, the annihilation of the self, subsumed into the vast emptiness of nature, is akin to a religious experience. We children grew up to know it and seek it as our father before us. What was social and sensory deprivation for the stranger was the earth and sky that made us what we were. For my mother, the emptiness was disorienting, and the loneliness and silence a daily torment of existential dread.

Had she known how to tell directions she would have walked her way to human voices.

Despite all that, her mother is a figure of strength in Conway’s childhood, facing each new setback with courage and action. Her mother encourages Conway to read by asking her to read aloud while her mother works at daily chores, made more onerous by the lack of electricity and running water. Cooking is done on a wood stove even in the brutal heat of summer. Her mother has to be ready to treat snakebite or help fight bushfires.

But three years after the death of Conway’s father, she and her mother move to Sydney, leaving a good manager to run the ranch. There, her mother’s drive has no outlet and she becomes more and more controlling. Weighed down by grief and anger—she sometimes rages at strange men for daring to be alive when her beloved husband is dead—she begins drinking and her moods become unpredictable. Conway takes refuge in her schooling.

No matter where she travels, Conway never loses her love of her native landscape, though as she learns more, she becomes more critical about the treatment of aboriginal peoples and the ambiguous morality of land ownership.

It’s a fascinating story of an earlier time, a place and a culture foreign to me, and yet Conway’s experience was like mine in so many ways. My book club all raved about the book, finding Conway’s prose beautiful to read and her life inspirational. We want more of this, they said.

Have you been inspired by a memoir about a woman overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, and going on to accomplish great things in the world?

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

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The story opens on a March evening, which in northern Rus’ (an earlier portion of what eventually became Russia) means winter has not loosened its grip. The three children of Pyotr Vladimirovich, the local landowner, beg their nurse Dunya for a story. Prompted by their mother, Dunya tells the story of Morozko, the Frost King, who was much feared by the people.

The stepmother of a peasant’s beautiful daughter decides to rid herself of the child by marrying her off to Morozko. Left alone deep in the forest, the girl does indeed meet Morozko who tests her courage with his power over the cold winds.

This is a marvelous way to start the story of Vasya, a fourth child born soon after this scene. Dunya’s story lets us know that this story is going to e a tale, one that draws on myths and legends of Rus’. It also sets up the story to follow.

Even as a child, Vasya—an independent scamp if ever there was one—demonstrates a power that no one else has: she can actually see the chyerti, the spirits that protect the household and horses, that live in the woods and ponds. Others believe in them and leave offerings for them, but only Vasya sees them and talks with them.

When Pyotr brings back a new wife—the children’s mother had died at Vasya’s birth—things begin to change. Anna forbids any recognition of these spirits and brings a beautiful and arrogant priest to their household to preach against this heresy, not just to the family but also to the village.

As crops fail and winter’s cold grows harsher, it becomes apparent that an ancient evil has awakened. Vasya is caught up in its rivalry with his opposite, though he appears to be as ruthless as the evil one and his goodness questionable. Vasya must draw on all of her gifts if she is to protect her family and her village.

It’s an exciting story, graced with vivid characters and stunning descriptions. I particularly liked the way real myths and legends are woven into Vasya’s story, and the sometimes astonishingly original depictions of mystical happenings.

The only thing I missed was Vasya’s internal life. True we get her thoughts and fears, but all her battles are with external forces; she never has to wrestle with herself. She is the same person at the end of the story as she is at the beginning. Though her circumstances have changed, she herself has not. Perhaps this is simply a given of the fairy tale genre, even one aimed at adults.

I had a couple of other minor quibbles—the title did not reflect the story, and some of the minor characters who loom large in early chapters then disappear—but overall I thought it a remarkable achievement, especially for a first novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have you read a fantasy novel that incorporated myths and legends in an unusual way?

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

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More a suspense novel than a mystery, this 2017 novel from Ruth Ware starts with a body turning up by a tidal estuary on the south coast of England. The next day Isa Wilde, living in North London with her husband and six-month-old daughter, receives a text saying simply “I need you.”

To her husband’s baffled dismay, Isa immediately packs up her baby and leaves for the village of Saltern, where 17 years earlier she had briefly attended a boarding school. There she’d become tight friends with Kate, Thea and Fatima, getting up to all kinds of mischief, sneaking cigarettes and alcohol, slipping out at night.

They also played what they called the lying game. The game had many rules, including points for how persuaded the unfortunate recipient was by their lies. That summer the four of them formed a bond strong enough to bring them back all these years later.

Kate, who sent the text, still lives in Saltern, in a ramshackle building called the Tide Mill on the other side of the Reach—the local name for the estuary—from the school. Her father Ambrose had been the art teacher at the school, enabling Kate to board there. His relaxed bohemian ways left the girls free to escape school regularly to make their way across the Reach to the Mill where they let loose as only 15-year-old girls can, swimming and drinking and exploring.

And confronting something that not only could blow the four apart from each other, such that they had not seen each other for 17 years, but was so explosive a secret that fear of it had haunted them all that time.

The book is more psychological suspense than the runaway train of a thriller. I appreciated the insight into the characters, all of whom we encounter through Isa’s eyes. I was fascinated by the changes in the young women. Fatima has become a doctor and begun practicing her faith, disconcerting the others with her hijab and refusal of alcohol. Kate has become an artist like her father, but barely making enough to hold body and soul together. Thea’s intensity and tendency to anorexia have only increased, while Isa has settled happily into marriage, motherhood, and a civil service job. They all have a lot to lose.

As a writer, I appreciated Ware’s sure-footed ability to take the reader in and out of the past without ever leaving us floundering, wondering what time period we were in. Good transitions and textual clues ensured that we always knew which time period we were in.

I also was impressed by her use of setting. The details we encounter through Isa’s eyes not only create vivid images of the places themselves but also add to the atmosphere and underline themes throughout the book. For example, at one point Isa is describing Saltern village and mentions the fishing nets hung on many of the cottages, presumably to add to the village’s appeal as a tourist destination. However the drooping, grey webs of netting make her wonder how anyone could bear to live enclosed by them.

Another example is the Mill itself. Remembered as a lost paradise, it has decayed through years of neglect to the point where it is not only falling apart, but is actually sinking into the sand. It has gotten so bad that during some high tides the electricity shorts out and the footbridge over the millstream to the land beyond is flooded.

Too much? Readers’ tastes vary, but I enjoyed how Ware could take clichés such as a house built on sand, being caught in a spider’s web, or crossing a treacherous bog and make them work, creating an intense atmosphere and increasing the suspense. The twists and turns of the story make the plot exciting, but more importantly reveal new layers of all of the characters, large and small.

What novel of psychological suspense have you read lately that you’d recommend?

Playlist 2018

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Songs are stories too. And sometimes poetry. And often a comfort to me. Many thanks to my friends for their music.

Fargo, North Dakota, Carter Burwell
Love Theme From Barton Fink, Carter Burwell
My Heart Has Wings, Aengus Finnan
North Wind, Aengus Finnan
Moon On The Water, Aengus Finnan
In the Bleak Midwinter, Bare Necessities
In the Bleak Midwinter, Ryland Angel
St. Margaret’s Hill, Bare Necessities
Old Wife Behind The Fire, Bare Necessities
Hard Times, Gillian Welch
The Way It Will Be, Gillian Welch
Six White Horses, Gillian Welch
Whole Heap a Little Horses, Elizabeth LaPrelle
Pretty Saro. Elizabeth LaPrelle
Black Is the Color, Elizabeth LaPrelle
The Bonny Black Hare, Ian Robb
The Rose of Allandale / Swannanoa, Ian Robb
A Psalm of Life, Jacqueline Schwab
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Jacqueline Schwab
Gentle Annie, Jacqueline Schwab
Sous Le Ciel De Paris, 3rd String Trio
Vent D’Automne, 3rd String Trio
Si Bheag, Si Mor, 3rd String Trio

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Mississippi Review

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One of the controversies circulating in the writing world has to do with cultural appropriation. What this buzz word boils down to is writing a story in which the protagonist is from a culture other than your own, one that is underrepresented in the publishing world. It could be a man writing from a female protagonist’s point of view, or a white writer with an Asian, Black, Native American, etc. protagonist.

One side argues that as writers we use our imagination and routinely imagine ourselves into characters unlike ourselves. Not every writer of crime fiction is a serial murderer. E. B. White didn’t have to be a pig to write Charlotte’s Web. Plus creating stories with characters from other cultures increases literary diversity.

The other side argues that you cannot understand someone from another culture as well as a member of that culture can. And by taking advantage of your privileged position to submit stories about already underrepresented cultures, you make it harder for members of those cultures to have their own, more genuine stories published.

I think both sides are right. We writers do use our imagination. We do need more diversity. At the same time, as I said in my review of The Help, I have little patience for unrealistic characters created by someone who obviously knows little about their experience. Of course, writers are free to write about whomever they choose. But I also remember my fury at the way famous white male authors of the last century—Roth, Mailer, etc.—felt free to define not only how a woman felt and thought, but also how she ought to behave. I still remember tearing up a Philip Roth book whose premise was that if the female lead refused sex with the male protagonist, then she must be insane and should be locked up; therefore the man must gaslight her.

Of course we ought to include diverse characters in our cast to reflect the diversity of people in our lives. When we do, it makes sense to do our research: read books by authors from that culture, talk with people from that culture whom we know, find beta readers who can alert us to our mistakes.

This brings us to the Mississippi Review and its Summer 2018 issue (Vol 46 No.s 1 & 2). While most of the stories are pretty good and a couple excellent, there is one that is laughably bad. The male author has his female protagonist, forty-nine and newly widowed, be reminded by washing dishes that she’s not going to be having sex anymore. Doesn’t every woman think about sex while washing dishes? To make things worse, he has her describe the sex she would be missing using slang that no woman would use, an extremely derogatory phrase used by men to describe women they’ve made use of as less than human.

Now if the author were trying to present a sex-obsessed, self-hating woman, such a phrase might work. But no, she is meant to be Everywoman; well, perhaps a not terribly bright Everywoman. When the second such mistake erupted by page four, I gave up on the story. These mistakes are similar to a goof a white writer I know owned up to recently: having her black protagonist’s teenager complain that her mother is “such a slavedriver”. Nope. Wouldn’t happen.

These errors should have disqualified the story, but the editor and associate editors listed in the magazine are all male. Yet another argument for more diversity in the publishing world. The VIDA count is a good way to track gender, race and other factors in publishing.

My intention, though, is to pick on the story, not the magazine. As I said, there are some excellent pieces in this issue. One that I loved transposed the film Chinatown to a circus and the Jack Nicholson character to a clown, which makes sense when you think about it. Another accurately conveys a woman’s struggle with overwhelming grief. Ironically, the story that won their 2018 fiction prize is written from the point of view of a rodeo bull. I have no idea how a bull actually thinks, but I found the story interesting. I hope the author did his research. Perhaps he works with bulls or interviewed those who do.

There is no doubt that we writers are going to write the stories we need to, the ones that grab hold of us and won’t let go. How we weigh their demands against other issues is up to each one of us. But what writer doesn’t want to create the most authentic characters possible, the ones who draw the reader in? Doing our research, learning all we can about each character’s world, consulting experts: these are all part of the writer’s job.

Have you ever been shocked or dismayed by an absurdly unrealistic character in a story?